Coca-Cola unleashes its fizzy drinks on the world and invites us to 'Enjoy'. But Veloor Swaminathan and around 200 people of his tribe wince when they hear that slogan. They believe that the Coca-Cola India manufacturing and bottling plant in their neighbourhood in the south Indian village of Plachimada, Kerala, has contaminated their water wells by continually exploiting the natural water resources.
The protest of adivasi (indigenous, or 'tribal') communities against Coke has entered its 12th month. Their placards read: 'Fresh Air, Fresh Water - Our birthright!' When not campaigning against Coke, Swaminathan, a local adivasi leader, in the locality, sits in his tiny workroom scattered with old motor parts. He has nothing to do these days: the rich landowners in the area have stopped calling him for work, as that would anger bosses at 'the Company'. Swaminathan says: 'On some days we go hungry. Yet we will carry on our fight against Coca-Cola. We won't let our kids go thirsty because of such corporate greed.'
Coca-Cola's bottling plant was set up three years ago in the middle of fertile agricultural land. 'I think Coca-Cola's plant is illegal because putting agricultural land to non-agricultural uses is prevented by law,' says Swaminathan. 'Besides, all our 13 wells with drinking water have been contaminated.'
According to a study team that visited the plant, Coca-Cola had the capacity to draw 1.5 million litres per day from six deeply dug wells to make its bottled water and aerated drinks. The team led by environmental activist Dr Achuthan believes this may have contributed to depletion of water in the area. Currently the water scarcity has hit even the company. Coca-Cola is now only able to extract 800,000 litres from the deep wells. According to local estimates, Coke's water mining has drained the sources of potable water of more than 1,000 people living within 1.6 square kilometres of the factory.
Barely six months after the factory was set up, farmers living around the bottling unit began noticing changes in the quantity and quality of well water. The water used by nearly 100 families living along the eastern wall of the factory rapidly turned brackish and milky white in colour. It turned out to be unfit for drinking, cooking and bathing.
CorpWatch India raised these allegations with the company last year. In its letter of response it denied any wrongdoing: 'The plant concerned has not drained the aquifers in the Palghat district... In fact, the local villages receive tankers of free water supplies each day from the plant to supplement their existing water sources.'
A scientific analysis of the water from the wells in Plachimada supported by CorpWatch India has concluded that '.use of this water for bathing and washing would cause severe nuisance and hardship'. Dr Achuthan also reports that the Pepsi water-bottling plants in the area may have caused massive contamination of drinking water in the neighbouring Kanjikkode village.
India's packaged-water industry - barely a decade old - is already a $170-million market expected to grow to $250 million by 2004. Brand names such as Coke's Kinley, Pepsi's Aquafina and the Indian bottled-water giant Parle's Bisleri enjoy an $85-million market. Despite an acute water scarcity in many parts of India, the Government has yet to legislate effectively to conserve groundwater resources.
In this dusty Indian village, the proverbial battle between David and Goliath is on. This time, will the little David do it? Hundreds of lives depend on the outcome.
Surgery under way on Cuban healthcare
This Caribbean island nation has one doctor for every 167 inhabitants compared to one per 358 in the United States, one per 437 in Canada, and one per 909 in Chile according to Granma, the official publication of Cuba's governing Communist Party.
But shortages of basic medicines, rundown hospitals and health centres, delays in obtaining basic non-emergency services like X-rays, and overburdened, underpaid family doctors are just some of the problems that Cubans have been complaining about for years.
Fidel Castro himself admitted the problem late last year when he said that 'unsound decisions, red tape and absurd work schemes and schedules' had caused considerable damage to the health system.
The family doctor and nurse programme was launched in 1984 and became the pillar of Cuba's primary-health system. But the burden of paperwork that was placed on the doctors limited the time they could dedicate to their patients.
A reorganization presently under way will mean that neighbourhood health clinics will once again provide a range of services that have gradually stopped being offered in the past 10 years.
In mid-January this year the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) unveiled a project to certify mines deemed as 'good' performers. The project involves some of the world's most controversial mining companies. Following a trial in Australia, WWF hope to establish a global mining-certification scheme emulating the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
The concept behind certification schemes is simple. A council accredits a natural-resource company's source of supply if it meets set social and environmental criteria. Consumers in the affluent north then pay a premium for products from sources that are certified. In an attempt to ensure integrity in the certification, NGO members help set the standards.
In November 2002 the British-based Rainforest Foundation released a report - Trading in Credibility - documenting a more sobering reality. In October 1998 FSC accreditation was awarded to logging operations of the Indonesian state forestry company despite violence against local people and lack of legal logging rights. After protests from community groups the FSC certification was suspended.
'In some countries - Ireland, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand - the FSC appears to have actually undermined efforts at a local and national level to reform either specific companies or the overall legal framework for the forestry sector,' says Simon Counsell, the Executive Director of the Rainforest Foundation.
The MSC too is under scrutiny. In a global test case Barry Weeber, senior policy officer with Forest and Bird, appealed against accrediting the hoki fishery, which he describes as one of the 'most destructive' in Aotearoa/New Zealand. In December 2002 the MSC rejected the appeal but conceded the certification body had not 'fully implemented a precautionary approach'.
Increasingly, community groups are wondering whether certification schemes are more of a hindrance than a help in achieving higher social and environmental standards in the resource sector.
In the pilot project to certify miners, a WWF briefing note reveals the 14-person project group included corporate sponsors - BHP-Billiton, WMC Resources, Newmont and Placer Dome - as well as two WWF representatives. Other members include the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) and accountancy company PriceWaterhouse Coopers - which is also a MCA member. The only indigenous representation is an advisor to the Australian Government.
Referring to the briefing note, WWF Programme Leader on Resource Conservation, Michael Rae, explained: 'That's all we have to say on the project for the moment.' WWF have previously confirmed that even uranium mines will not be excluded from consideration.
Placer Dome's vice president for Business Development, Arthur Hood, is upbeat about the project: 'We have got to put something in place outside the industry. to give us credibility and help our PR image in the future,' he told a recent industry conference.
Other community groups are wary. 'The key to necessary raising of standards in mining is to listen to and respect the wishes of the potential victims of mining,' says Geoff Nettleton of the London-based Philippine Indigenous Peoples Links. 'A national conference in the Philippines in May 2002 called for a moratorium on mining, a scrapping of the current laws and a new law to regulate more closely and limit mining. There was no call for certification of "good" mines,' he said. 'The trust for this is just not there and without it this scheme will be suspect.'
Slavery haunts Elizabeth II
The Rastafari Brethren of Jamaica, through the office of Public Defender Howard Hamilton, sent Queen Elizabeth II a letter requesting reparations for slavery and repatriation to Africa.
The response received back in January 2003 from the British High Commission was negative. 'We regret and condemn the inequities of the historic slave trade. But these shameful activities belong to the past. Governments today cannot take responsibility for what happened over 150 years ago,' the High Commission said.
Nevertheless Hamilton believes there is room for optimism. 'Once there has been the admission of a wrong,' Hamilton says, 'the minds must be put together to determine how we can achieve a remedy. Debt relief is one method that could go a long way.'
But attorney-at-law Michael Lorne notes that the British Government has used similar expressions of regret in response to several previous petitions for reparations to no practical effect.
'The black world is looking at how we can go about it. I know in Zimbabwe, in Nigeria, black lawyers in America, we're all looking at ways to bring action against the Queen and against the British Government for the atrocities committed during slavery,' he says.
While the world's eyes are on the hundreds of thousands of US troops in the Gulf region, their deployment in other global hotspots on a scale not seen since World War Two has gone unnoticed.
Perhaps it was a coincidence, but in the last week of February 2003 one of the country's leading neo-conservative writers called explicitly for Washington to serve as 'Globocop' just as the Pentagon announced it was sending 3,000 troops to the Philippines for joint operations against a minor Muslim guerrilla group.
Meanwhile, German commanders of the international force in Kabul warned that the US might have to beef up its 7,000 troops continuing operations in Afghanistan in order to cope with possible new fighting.
Thousands more US military personnel are on standby in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, ready to snatch suspected Islamic terrorists from Yemen to Somalia, while 4,000 more reservists remain in Bosnia and Kosovo to help keep the peace in the Balkans.
The Pentagon has put 24 long-range bombers on alert for possible use in the ongoing nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, where many of the 37,000 US troops already deployed there are scheduled to take part in joint manoeuvres with the South Korean Army.
Welcome to Pax Americana. US armed forces are on the move around the world on a scale not seen for over 50 years, in a dramatic illustration of the Bush administration's National Security Strategy publicly released last September. 'The United States must and will maintain the capability to defeat any attempt by any enemy - whether a state or non-state actor - to impose its will on the United States, our allies, or our friends,' that document stated, in what has since been called the 'Bush Doctrine'.
Max Boot, a prominent neo-conservative writer based at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out that the Bush Doctrine is really the globalization of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine designed to assert Washington's exclusive sphere of influence over the Americas. In 1904 US President Theodore Roosevelt added this corollary: 'the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.'
As pointed out by Boot, who is very close to the neo-conservatives surrounding Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, this doctrine is now being applied on a much grander scale than it was in Roosevelt's day, indicated by his recent Financial Times column entitled 'America's Destiny is to Police the World'.
Such a view appears perfectly consistent not only with what US forces are doing today, but also with the Pentagon's plans, which amount to a major geo-strategic shift in the way that US forces are deployed around the world.
The Pentagon wants to scale down its huge European army bases in favour of smaller 'hubs' on land and even at sea. Pre-positioned close to likely hotspots, particularly in East and Central Asia and the Gulf, they would feature fast deployment of troops using lighter, but much deadlier, weapons.
Such a configuration, it is believed, would not only save money by greatly reducing the number of big, expensive army bases abroad and even at home, but would also extend Washington's military reach to just about every strategic point in the world.
Earlier this month, a group of hawks called on the White House immediately to boost the defence budget, now almost $400 billion dollars annually, by at least 100 billion dollars in order to finance the Bush Doctrine.
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